Motorsport’s Role in Extending EV Adoption

One of the ways manufacturers are developing their EV and hybrid tech is by taking it racing.

Formula 1 and the World Endurance Championship have both been using hybrid powertrains as a major part of the regulations for a good few years now, with five manufacturers, Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault, Honda and Toyota, all competing in one of the two championships. Additionally, electric single seater series Formula E has no less than eight manufacturers competing including Audi, HWA, DS, Mahindra, NIO, Nissan, BMW and Jaguar. While the cars look identical, under the hood each manufacturer can build their own powertrains, comprising of transmission, gearbox and motors. Batteries are exclusively supplied by McLaren Applied Technologies, with the maximum power output of the car coming in at 250kW – approximately 335bhp.

One the leading Formula E teams is DS Techeetah, which won the drivers’ championship with Jean-Eric Vergne last year and came within two points of team champions Audi. Last year Techeetah ran ‘customer’ powertrains acquired from Renault, comprehensively beating the factory Renault team come the end of the season.

For this season, however, Techeetah has a new partnership with DS, however, moving it into the realm of a manufacturer team. TU-Automotive spoke to Mark Preston, team principal of DS Techeetah, to find out more about the team’s new partnership and how DS and Techeetah work together to advance the age of the electric car.

Preston said: “DS develops the powertrain and the car, while we race it.” This means that the parts DS can develop under the rules, such as the powertrain and transmission, can directly relate back to its road car business. Racing has always been a way to develop technology in racing, whether it be brakes-related, aerodynamics, or, in DS’s case, to develop EV technology so it doesn’t get left behind by its rivals, many of whom also compete in Formula E for the same reason.

A major difference in Formula E compared to other world motorsports is cost. A top Formula 1 team can spend $300M a year or more developing every aspect of its car, from aerodynamics to absurdly complex hybrid power units. However, because Formula E has ‘spec’ parts, including aerodynamics and batteries, manufacturers and teams are forced to develop only what they can such as powertrain, suspension and brakes. Subsequently, most of the development inside those areas focuses on making the car more efficient.

Traditionally, fuel economy is a big thing in both road cars and motorsport – if you can make a car go longer on a single tank of fuel, it will cost less and you will get where you’re going faster. Or, in racing terms, you’ll win. It’s exactly the same in Formula E and with electric cars, with some caveats. In view of the fact that electric cars take much longer to charge than a traditional car can fill a tank with fuel, range anxiety has long been a concern for consumers.

This is one of the primary reasons why manufacturers are involved in Formula E because if they can make their cars efficient enough it means the driver has more power available when he or she needs it, such as for making a last lap overtake. This efficiency should then translate well to power management in a road car, letting drivers go for longer on a single charge and helping to resolve range anxiety.

With so many components of the electric racing cars locked down, the main way to improve efficiency is by innovating and developing the software which controls them. Like many modern cars, racing cars are run by computers, electronic control units (ECUs) which control the brakes, throttle and gears. With no moving parts in a Formula E power unit, the ECU is one of the main components of the car. The software it runs on, and which subsequently links and runs on the power unit and transmission, is freely available to be developed by the teams.

More advanced, efficient and faster software was one of the reasons why Techeetah won its first drivers’ championship in 2018, Preston said. With the switch from being a customer to manufacturer team, the onus is now on DS to develop the software which will power the cars. DS’s performance director, Thomas Chevaucher, said that the relationship it has with Techeetah is “much closer” than the relationship with the Virgin team, which was the manufacturer’s partner for Seasons 1-4. While DS Virgin didn’t do at all badly, last season they finished third in the championship with two race wins, a closer working relationship between team and manufacturer can only be a good thing, especially with Techeetah looking to defend its drivers title.

DS’s Formula E department works in collaboration with the research and development team to move the performance gains and Chevaucher said these gains usually center around the recovery of heat energy and the development of the software running on the cars to improve efficiency.

The software plays a huge part in the cars performance and ability to regenerate energy under braking by turning heat from brakes, that can reach temperatures of around 800°c in a racing car, into electrical energy which can then be redeployed back into the power unit. This can be paramount to the development of the underlying powertrain.

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